[Woman in Tech] An MIT and Harvard grad, Phalgun Raju believes in the transformative power of technologySindhu Kashyaap
“I taught myself programming and would code up our TRS-80 computer to play games when I was a kid,” says Phalgun Raju.
An entrepreneur and techie, Phalgun was born in Mysore and grew up in Long Island and Pittsburgh in the US. The daughter of a brilliant engineer, being technically inclined towards math and science was natural for Phalgun.
A mechanical engineer, Phalgun spent a year during college working as an engineer at GE Aircraft Engines, working on engine design for commercial and military jet engines. Finishing college early, Phalgun went to MIT at the age of 20 to complete her Masters in Mechanical Engineering.
“After my experience at GE and during MIT, I was more interested in the business side of things than engineering as a career, though engineering was a great foundation. I joined McKinsey right after MIT in their post-MBA role and became one of the youngest engagement managers in the history of McKinsey,” says Phalgun.
Trying different things
It was while at McKinsey that she learnt about business and how to approach problem solving in a structured and rigorous way. While she loved her role at McKinsey, Phalgun realised that she was more passionate about building businesses hands-on than being a lifelong consultant.
As she was still young, Phalgun decided to go to Harvard Business School for her MBA. She describes this as a great two-year period, during which she could explore different interests. It was here that she met her husband Nick (Nikhil).
Phalgun had experimented with entrepreneurship right after business school, and that taught her a lot. “That didn’t work out, but I had a taste of it, and learnt important lessons on what not to do,” says Phalgun.
Over the last decade, Phalgun has held senior leadership roles at Google and Nokia, among other big players in the American mobile industry. At the end of 2011, Phalguni and Nick moved to Southeast Asia so that she could join InMobi. This move was made after a talk with InMobi CEO Naveen Tewari, who had been her classmate at Harvard Business School, and she joined the company as VP and GM, India, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The power that technology has
“I love the transformative power of technology in helping people, solving huge inefficiencies by re-imagining and re-engineering industries. The explosion of mobile in particular has been one of those great inflection points in technology and the history of our planet in terms of the communications revolution,” says Phalgun.
In all the companies Phalgun worked at, she would go out of her way to find opportunities and roles where she would have to build businesses from scratch or a small base. Phalgun says she was naturally inclined towards and excited about doing entrepreneurial things, even if it was within a large company, because of the opportunity to have a transformative impact at scale.
Even at Google, she worked on developing completely new businesses, and soon she got the opportunity to start her own.
Phalgun, however, is one of the few women in the technology space. Quoting statistics, she says that the number of women studying engineering has dropped significantly in the past 30 years, making them significantly underrepresented in technology leadership roles.
Transformation begins young
A recent study showed that in the 1980s, almost 40 percent of computer science graduates in the US were women. Today, the number is less than 18 percent.
“So we need to start well before choices of career are made, in the pre-university stage or even earlier, encouraging young women to pursue science or technology. Unfortunately, there is a lot of social conditioning that women and girls are heavily exposed to in the media or by family. Also, most girls are not fully aware of what a day in the life of an engineer is like, or the kind of impact it can have,” says Phalgun.
In terms of career women in technology, Phalgun believes we are not going to change social biases overnight. In fact, there was a significant research study recently that concluded that women wrote better-rated code than men, but were rated much lower if they identified themselves as being women.
For women in tech, whether in the workplace or their own startup, cultivating supportive mentors (men or women) and a strong network is key, but doesn’t come as readily for women who tend to go it alone.
In 2015, Phalgun launched Morph.org, a philanthropic foundation to develop social ventures and projects in India and other emerging markets by funding and building them.
Some of the key projects include the Ramanujan Project, sponsoring exceptionally talented low-income students of mathematics in India every year, and DonorFind, a location-based mobile application facilitating blood and bone marrow donation. DonorFind won the 2015 Social Innovation Award at GMIC.
“Around the same time last year, I had the idea for my current startup, expertDB, a global consulting marketplace. Our vision is to democratise knowledge by making expertise accessible to companies and projects available to experts when they want, where they want, and how they want—it’s the future of work,” says Phalgun. expertDB launched recently and raised seed funding.
expertDB works with everyone, from startups to Fortune 1000 companies around the world, looking to find and hire the right business or technical subject-matter experts for quick insights, data, best practices or short-term or long-term projects.
Learning hard lessons
Starting up, however, comes with its own challenges. Phalgun believes that one of the hardest lessons she has learned over the years is to not hire for skill alone.
This is especially true for a startup because you don’t have the buffer zone of a large company. She adds that you need to have only the best people working with you, because this sets the tone for the culture of the startup.
Though Phalgun hasn’t experienced major obstacles in people treating her differently because of her gender, she nevertheless believes that there are huge biases and many examples present in the market and ecosystem.
Some of this, she says, has to do with the lazy pattern-recognition approach a lot of venture capitalists take. Citing an example, Phalgun says if you dropped out of Stanford or came out of an IIT, are under 30, male, and hopefully wear a hoodie, then you fit the mould.
“As a woman entrepreneur, I think there are certain behaviours you have to display for people to take you seriously. For instance, investors want to know that you have a big vision, you’re driven, can execute, and can make the hard decisions—all the things they would want to know from a male entrepreneur— but it’s even more important that women articulate those traits,” says Phalgun.
Dispensing a little advice for women entrepreneurs, Phalgun asks them to find strong mentors and advisors who believe in the product as well as them.
She adds that it is important to learn quickly from all failures. “Because it will happen, have a clear, big vision, and ask for help,” says Phalgun. Women typically don’t do this as easily as men. It is also important to break into the networks that are valuable to you or your business, even if it is a boy’s club.